Libyan rebels in the Nafusa Mountains are preparing another step in their advance toward Tripoli, but after capturing a string of hamlets they face the tough task of taking the town of Asabah.
Even with allies inside Asabah fomenting revolution and spies providing intelligence on enemy positions, taking the town is not going to be easy.
Asabah is the last stop in the mountains before Garyan — a heavily defended rampart for the capital Tripoli.
While the rebels have been buoyed by a clutch of victories in these mountains south of the capital, Asabah is home to prominent families close to the regime of Moamer Kadhafi.
It has a large military base and a population faithful to the regime. The Libyan leader felt comfortable enough to have a country house there.
“This is the last town before Garyan and they want to stop the (rebel) advance, it is full of armed Kadhafi supporters.”
Since the “freedom fighters” took the hamlet of Gualish on Wednesday, 17 kilometres from Asabah, they have been awaiting “the green light from NATO” to advance.
“We don’t know when but there will be a battle” — and soon — said Colonel Juma Brahim, the region’s operational commander.
The link between the Brussels-headquartered alliance’s strikes and the rebel advance is clear.
Without NATO raining bombs on Kadhafi positions there would be no advance. But the rebels want more and are now organised enough to lend NATO a hand.
“There are rebels and (army) colleagues in place there who spy for us, we are in contact with them every day. We know all their positions and how many soldiers there are there,” said a former commander who asked not to be named.
The rebels say they know the city is surrounded on all sides by the army.
“There are at least 10 tanks and some snipers on top of buildings”, said one young man who recently managed to flee from Asabah through the mountains.
The rebels also suspect that Kadhafi’s army regulars are exhausted by the NATO strikes. “But they are at the front line and if they want to defect, the foreigners (mercenaries) will shoot them,” said Talal Ahmed, a former policeman.
With “hundreds” of rebels already inside the town there is hope the battle can be won before it starts in earnest.
“We’re trying to make contact with them and provide them with equipment and weapons. We’re trying to start a revolution from within. It would be good for us,” said Brahim.
But since the beginning of the rebel offensive in the mountains last week, the situation has become more difficult.
“The rebels inside (Asabah) had orders in case of attack, but they had to flee the mountains. Since Gualish was taken no one can move in the city. Kadhafi’s forces are looking for rebels and have distributed weapons to families close to the regime,” said the young man who defected.
And there are still many civilians holed up in the town, lacking fuel and food and allegedly prevented from leaving by Kadhafi’s forces — who also appear to be ready for the fight.
They targeted rebel fighters with Grad rockets and light arms fire all Monday morning.
“We are ready for battle… We have no fear of NATO or the so-called rebels,” the city’s mayor Hamuda Mukhtar Salem said Sunday.
Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmudi said in an interview published Tuesday that Kadhafi will not take part in proposed talks between the embattled regime and rebels.
“The Guide will not take part in these discussions. Everything must be open,” he told France’s Le Figaro newspaper, referring to Kadhafi.
“We are ready to negotiate unconditionally,” he said, adding it was not for him to say “in which room… the Guide will find himself”.
The comments came a day after French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet suggested that Kadhafi could remain in Tripoli “in another room in his palace” and NATO could stop its bombing campaign while talks began.